Developing Leaders in the Workflow

This blog is excerpted from the Performance Matters Podcast. In this episode hosts Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson tackle soft skills, specifically leadership, as research shows senior executives are currently spending just 3% of their workday thinking about the future. 

Bob Mosher (BM): I am ecstatic today to be joined by my dear friend and mentor and business colleague, Dr. Con Gottfredson to talk soft skills and leadership. One of the most common myths we get about performance support is, “Oh. It’s procedural. Oh, yeah. We see all this procedural stuff. The old days of embedded technology and software. I get it. I can see why an EPSS would be helpful there. But there’s no way that performance support can be helpful with supporting soft skills.”

Let’s run at this one in a powerful way because it is ridiculous that we have that misunderstanding. Where do you think that comes from, Con?

Con Gottfredson (CG): Well, I think many people’s initial thought about performance support is that it is a job aid that helps you do something.

But goodness gracious, leadership is anything but soft. And we do know that leaders have tactical work that they have to do and that’s crucial for us to understand, because that work can be documented as tasks. They are just principle-based tasks, not procedural.

BM: Well, and I think this is where leadership training falls short. Just look at how many competency-based leadership programs there are—it’s not that we don’t agree that leaders have competencies—but the problem is that for such an important role, for such a crucial training program to any organization, this is one that I think leaves its learners lacking, or wanting maybe more than any other program. Leaders exhibit competencies through performance. Through behavior.

CG: Right! I can’t imagine a leader walking out of a course on being approachable and then going, “Okay, I’m going to be approachable right now.” Being approachable has to do with how you are in the context of the work that you do. Just like all the other competencies out there, they are applied in the doing part of leadership, not in isolation.

BM: “Soft skill” implies “soft and squishy” by its nature. “Soft skill” implies that, to your point, it’s not a hard skill. Let’s get away from “soft skills” because we don’t call the other area “hard skills.” The other area is—I get it—procedural based. Why can’t we call leadership “principle based?”

CG: Right! And frankly, leaders also do procedural work. And sometimes there is a task that is both procedural and principle based. So, from a world of instructional design and all of that, it doesn’t break apart so clean as “Ah! This is a soft skill and this is a hard skill!” No. It’s, “We do it all.”

BM: You know what, Con? Because we don’t understand the workflow of a leader in a lot of organizations, one thing we hear a lot is that they get mired in the procedural stuff and they never do get to lead!

When they go to leadership trainings, it’s about the cerebral stuff. It’s about the principles they should be exhibiting. It’s about the competencies they should internalize and do. But then they go back to their desks and they get caught up in forms and feedback, in scheduling and hiring, and so on because the organization hasn’t separated processes and procedures of being a leader from the values and competencies they hope they exhibit. And they make them do this huge, quantum cognitive leap between the principles of leadership and the reality of leading in the workflow. And so, our RWA fits here, Doesn’t it? Rapid Workflow Analysis fits in this context.

CG: Well, frankly, most of the work that we do for our clients is in “soft skills”, in that principle based work. There are very few projects that we work on that there isn’t principle-based support. And I think people have not had a lot of experience in developing the instructions for applying principles in accomplishing work. And that’s where it gets a little difficult.

I remember a project. We had done a Rapid Workflow Analysis. We had mapped the workflow. And we had these principle-based tasks. And the team that I was working with said, “There are no steps!”

And I said, “Well, okay. Suppose I’m brand-new and you’re going to train me in this, what’s the first thing that I do?” And they told me. And I said, “That’s a step!”

And then I said, “After I’ve done this, what next?” And they said, “Well, you would do this.” And I go, “That’s a step! It’s a principle-based step.” And they got it.

BM: Let’s broaden this a bit before we go deeper. Sales training. Principle based.

CG: Yeah!

BM: A lot of soft skills on how to handle objections, how to make your pitch. And the reality is, just maybe, Con, a lot of sales reps fail at becoming good sales folks because we don’t take the principles of selling and lay them out in a tactical way in which they can take those and put them into a sales process—in a way that’s meaningful and deliberate for them.

CG: Yeah, and you know, Bob, for new leaders, they are especially in need of tactical help so that they can lift themselves above that, as experienced leaders are able to do. Most experienced leaders have figured out the tactical stuff. They’ve learned how to delegate. They’ve figured that out and are therefore able to free up higher order processing and thinking that leaders need to have the time to do. That’s where all leaders need to be, and we need to help them be able to step away from this more tactical work with a digital coach—an EPSS.

BM: Tell me more about this journey of competencies. They have roamed the leadership landscape forever. There are organizations that sell them. There are organizations that have competency models. And again—I want to make sure we’re careful here. We’re not saying that we do not feel that leadership is not backed by, and supported by, competencies. Candidly, any job is supported by competencies.

CG: Absolutely! They certainly need to be taught. There’s nothing wrong with teaching those attributes, or those competencies, and focusing in and helping them learn how to express those and so forth. But, they also need context. They need to be able to take those competencies and in the context of their work be reminded of those competencies to have them reinforced in the context of where they make sense.

Every project that we have worked with where there are competencies involved, we identify the tactical work that the leader does and then we map them to the competencies. And that informs us as we write and develop the steps, the principle-based steps of any given task associated with leadership. Because we tie to those competencies. We want to reference them. And then, if they are struggling—they have a “quick check.”

This is when you get that feeling of, “Well, that didn’t go well.”

You then pull up a “quick check” and move through it and I identify where you went wrong. That ties me to the competency, or the competencies, associated and then I’m able to go in with performance support and access and remind myself of those principles.

BM: Let’s be sure that we review what you just said because this is a critical part and another myth of performance support. And that is—unless it’s embedded in the moment, pops up on my screen, appears on my mobile, or embeds in software at the moment of application—if it can’t meet that immediate need, then it’s not performance support.

We’ve learned through the help of another colleague, Allison Rossett, that the journey to support is not one of only immediacy in the moment.

Because adults can process, plan, and also remediate—there really are three phases of where performance support steps in—particularly in leadership.

CG: Yeah!

BM: There’s the “Planning Before.” Minutes before a performance appraisal. These types of things that we know are scheduled and will happen, such as an end of year review.

Of course, there’s “During” if that’s possible. But often leadership is face time. It’s very “in the moment.” There’s an intimacy to it where performance support may not be applicable.

But “After,” in remediation, when a moment goes bad, or you did something just okay and you want to get better—it’s here where the digital coach comes into play. Just after that moment ends and I walk away, my ability to refresh, associate, remediate, and get better the next time I do it is powerful. So “Before,” some “During,” but also “After” are places where things like a digital coach and performance support can support those in leadership in a remarkable way.

CG: Yeah! And Bob, what you just described is a continuous improvement plan. If I can plan and go in and then do it, and then check myself against that, and then find the feedback and the remediation that I need, I’m on a journey of continually improving.

BM: So, performance support. Soft skills. There’s potential here.

CG: More than potential. It’s what we need. There is so much waste going on because we stop short of application. We train leaders in these wonderful principles, these crucial principles of leadership, and then we leave it to them to figure out how to implement that in their day-to-day work. And we can’t do that. We shouldn’t do that.

We have an opportunity here to extend what it is that we do in the name of developing leaders into the flow of work; to allow them to be able to know where and when they can apply those principles or those attributes that we’ve identified as crucial in the leadership process.

BM: I couldn’t have said it better and I’m not going to try!

Listen to the full episode for Bob and Con’s full conversation on developing leaders in the flow of work.

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